Inside the entrance to the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Castello, Venice you will find an altar dedicated to Marcantonio Bragadin, on which you can n urn bearing his portrait bust. However, it is the fresco above which is so disturbing as it portrays the horrible way in which this Venetian hero met his death. The urn actually contain’s the man’s skin, but it is not visible to the public. It was last opened by specialists in 1961, and for obvious reasons is not likely to be opened again soon.
Mercantonion Bragadin was appointed governor of Cyprus in 1569, and he set sail for Famagusta, the seat of civilian government on the Island. By 1570, Cyprus has been under Venetian control for some eighty-one years and it was in this year, that the island became the focus of Turkish invaders, in the form of the fleet of Turkish Sultan Selim II. The Turks took Nicosia, and Lala Mustafa , the Turkish commander, sent a message to Famagusta, calling on them to surrender, a message accompanied by the head of the Venetian Lieutenant, Niccolo Dandolo, no doubt as a warning.
Famagusta, was a heavily fortified city and the approximately 6,000 defenders of the city were led by Bragadin and Astorre Baglioni, who were beseiged by in excess of 200,000 Turks. The siege lasted for almost a year, by which time, the defenders were all but out of powder, while food was almost non-existent, the town having eaten all the cats, donkeys and horses. The white flag of surrender was tendered on 1 August and the peace terms were surprisingly generous. The letter was signed by Mustafa and was sealed with the Sultan’s seal,
Bragadin offered to meet with Mustafa and give him the keys to the city, an offer warmly received but when Bragadin, Baglioni and an entourage arrived, Mustafa flew into a rage, cutting off Baglioni’s ear, then ordering an attendant to cut off the other, then his nose. He was then beheaded, while most of the entourage were also massacred.
Bragadin however, had a special fate reserved for him. He was jailed for two weeks, during which time his sores had begun to fester and he became seriously ill. After being dragged around this city and subjected to other torture, he was taken to the town square, stripped naked and skinned alive. It is said that he bore this is silence for half an hour until the executioner reached his waist, when he died. HIs head was then cut off, his body quartered and his skin and stuffed with straw and cotton and sewn together. Mustafa returned to his Sultan with this macabre trophy along with the heads of other commanders,
Nothing is known of the heads, but some nine years later, one of the survivors the of the siege, Girolamo Polidoro, managed to steal the skin of Bragadin from the Arsenal of Constantinople and returned it to Bragadin’s sons, who deposited it in the Church of San Gregorio, In 1596 it was transferred to the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo where it currently lies. In 1961, with the consent of Bragadin’s direct descendent, the niche was opened and it was found to contain a leaded casket, in which there were several pieces of tanned human skin.
A fascinating, if uncomfortable small piece of Venetian history but still well worth recalling, so when you visit the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, and you see this fresco, think on the bravery of this man.